What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THE ROYAL American MAGAZINE, Or UNIVERSAL REPOSITORY. [To be published monthly.]”
Nearly three weeks after Isaiah Thomas inserted “PROPOSALS For printing by SUBSCRIPTION, A NEW Periodical Production, entitled, THE ROYAL American MAGAZINE, Or UNIVERSAL REPOSITORY,” in his own newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, those proposals appeared in the July 12, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy and continued throughout the rest of the month. In those iterations, the proposals did not benefit from the same privileged place. Thomas ran the lengthy advertisement in the first two columns on the first page of the Massachusetts Spy. Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks, in contrast, used smaller type and condensed the proposals to a single column on the final page of their newspaper. The proposals ran alongside all sorts of other advertisements. Still, they appeared in their entirety.
That included an address “To the PUBLIC” in which Thomas encouraged prospective subscribers to contemplate the value, not just the utility, of the magazine. He contrasted magazines with newspapers, “only noticed for a day; and then thrown neglected,” asserting that magazines contained literature, a category that encompassed all manner of inquiry, that merited preserving and passing down from generation to generation. Thomas lamented, “Before the art of printing was known, the sons of science suffered greatly; and it is beyond a doubt that for the want of that useful vehicle the PRINTING PRESS, in those days, many very valuable essays of the ancients have been buried in oblivion.” In his role as printer, Thomas could play a part in preventing that from happening again, but he needed subscribers as partners in that endeavor. He explained to prospective subscribers that “In this polite age when printing flourishes, the man of genius may hand his performances to the public, who may give them to their children, and so transmit them down to posterity.” Subscribers thus played as important a role as any “man of genius” who composed essays and the printer who served as a broker in disseminating them.
Thomas also asserted that the colonies had a particular need for a “NEW Periodical Publication” in the form of a magazine so “the productions of men of genius might be more universally known.” Colonial printers produced other periodicals – weekly newspapers and annual almanacs – but the lack of monthly magazines, according to Thomas, “has long been complained of by men of the greatest ingenuity in the American world.” The printer imagined that those men “would undoubtedly much oftner favour the public with essays, instructive and entertaining to all classes of men, if there was a suitable periodical publication for their insertion.” Booksellers imported magazines from London that featured works by European authors, but those magazines rarely included essays composed by colonizers in North America and the West Indies. For the most part, they did not capture distinctively American perspectives or experiences.
The Royal American Magazine provided a forum for both American and European authors. “Several gentlemen of know abilities,” Thomas announced, “have kindly promised to favour the public through THIS channel, with essays on various subjects for instruction and amusement.” He pledged that “Their productions will no doubt fill a considerable part of this work,” but also acknowledged that he would draw content from “British Magazines, [and] Reviews.” Thomas emphasized that this involved “selecting from the labours of our European brethren,” but he wished to prioritize American content. To that end, he requested “the assistance of the learned, the witty, the curios and the candid of both sexes throughout this extensive continent, and hopes they will favour him with their correspondence for the public benefit.” Thomas apparently imagined a place for women as both readers and contributors to “this American performance” or magazine.
The call for subscribers and contributors eventually radiated out from Boston, appearing in newspapers published in other cities. The Adverts 250 Project will examine other aspects of the lengthy subscription proposals while tracing their dissemination in American newspapers. Thomas expected the proposals to circulate so widely that “printers and booksellers in AMERICA,” from New England to Georgia, would compile lists of local subscribers on his behalf.